Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Historically High Immigration Makes Capping Classroom Sizes Impossible

Chicago’s 25,000 public schoolteachers are on strike, with a grievance list familiar to all educators in the nation’s K-12 system. On behalf of its members, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) demands better health care with no copay hike, a salary bump, staffing increases for nurses, and other support personnel, more prep time, and most important, classroom size caps to reduce unmanageable overcrowding. CPS is the United States’ third largest school system with more than 600 schools that serve 361,000 students.

The harsh reality is that as long as immigration remains at its historically high levels, capping classroom size is impossible. Hispanics make up the largest enrollment block, 46.7 percent, in Chicago’s public schools. Many are recent Central American migrants and unaccompanied minors drawn to sanctuary city Chicago, and are non-English speaking children who face multiple challenges like poverty and a non-nurturing home environment.

Obvious to most is that fewer immigrant students would help the CTU reach many of its goals, most specifically smaller classes. In a perfect world, the CTU would lobby for a more common-sense immigration policy on the grounds that it would aid in better serving the existing student population that includes 36.6 percent African-Americans. But that’s unlikely to happen. Like every other teachers’ union across America, the CTU is driven by political correctness. The union wants more, not fewer, sanctuary schools, and greater protections for illegal immigrant families. Such a goal requires an additional funding layer for a public school budget that Chicago officials already insist is stretched to the maximum: more money must be allocated for more counselors, more support staff and, according to school officials, more trained personnel to deal with federal immigration officials should they appear on campus.

The percentage of public school students in the U.S. who were classified as English Language Learners (ELL) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) is rising. In fall 2016, 9.6 percent, or 4.9 million students, qualified as ELL, up from 8.1 percent or 3.8 million in fall 2000. With public school enrollment projected to continue climbing through at least 2024, a corresponding increase in the demand for special language classes is a certainty. Between 2000 and 2016, Illinois’ ELL enrollment spiked from 126,000 to 197,000, 8.1 percent of total enrollment; nationwide, ELL enrollment increased from 3.8 million to 4.8 million, or 9.6 percent of the total K-12 student population.

The federal government provides about 8 percent of public schools’ funding, but only 1 percent of the annual cost of ELL and LEP programs. The net annual cost to Illinois taxpayers to support ELL/LEP instruction is $2.8 billion.

As a practical matter, Illinois taxpayers shouldn’t be financially obligated to educate the world’s children, especially if doing so detracts from the quality of education that their citizen students receive. Most K-12 teachers would reluctantly agree that, unfortunately, the steady flow of migrant children limits their principal task of providing a basic, solid education to nonimmigrant pupils.

The law states, however, that everyone is entitled to a public education, even the unlawfully present. In 2014, the Obama administration, through Attorney General Eric Holder, reaffirmed its position that school districts must enroll students regardless of their immigration status. Holder threatened to “vigilantly enforce the law,” a reference to the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision.

But one career educator boldly identified the real problem. In her New Republic essay, former Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch wrote, bluntly but accurately, “We don’t have a crisis in education. What we’re faced with is a social crisis of poverty, of inequality, of kids who don’t speak English, of kids with disabilities.”

The solution is less legal and illegal immigration which would reduce the enrollment pressure that overwhelms school districts and teachers. For all the pious talk Congress makes about “the children,” it’s indifferent to immigration’s effect on the public education of U.S. kids.

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